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A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


Can Russia Modernise? A historian’s perspective

By Sean L Hanley, on 18 March 2014

Can Russia Modernise ThumbnailIn her 2013 book Can Russia Modernise? Alena Ledeneva picked out key types of networks that make up Sistema:  Russia’s complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective systems of informal governance. In the second part of a three-part ‘mini-symposium’ Geoffrey Hosking assesses the book and its arguments from a historian’s perspective.

 This is a very good book, but it shares some of the characteristics of the system it describes.  One thinks one has grasped an important point, but then on the next page it turns out that point is not always valid, its operation is subtly influenced by other aspects of the system.

I would see sistema as ‘the way to get things done’, the allocation of power and resources in order to get things done.  It is a system of personal relationships, accepted practices and codes of behaviour (poniatiia), not formulated or laid down explicitly but generally understood.  It centres on Putin as President (and did even when he was Prime Minister:  persons are more important than institutions), but his actual power within it is not unlimited.  He is locked into it and his freedom of action is constantly circumscribed by it.

 In this sense it confirms Foucault’s dictum about power operating along several vectors:  downwards, but also upwards and sideways.  Its operation is intangible:  there is often no need for direct instructions or commands, because people know how they are expected to behave.  Much depends on loyalty and trust, but trust which is limited and instrumental.  A trusts B for certain purposes, but not more than that: I trust him because I know him well, his strengths and weaknesses, and what he is good at doing; perhaps I also have some kompromat on him.  This is also forced trust, because there is no real alternative.

Alena Ledeneva identifies distinct networks around Putin: 1. an inner circle, which is  agenda setting where there  is daily or regular, frequent contact; 2. core contacts for the implementation of policy –  people who are well known from institutional contact, and trusted to get things done without frequent contact.  3.  useful friends who are similar, but with emphasis on relationships formed in youth, who are useful to get things done or trouble-shoot problems, but who will expect in return to be offered opportunities to make money; and  4. mediated contacts used for getting things done locally or at a lower institutional level.  Essentially these are patron-client networks of various types.  However, it should be noted, that patron-client networks differ from authoritarian ones in that clients need to get something out of them. 

Soviet roots, post-Soviet realities

 Sistema grew out of the Soviet system, but differs from it in certain essential ways.  The Soviet system rested more on blat, mutual helping out in a society of shortages.  Ledeneva maintains that blat was egalitarian, but I am not sure; in Soviet society a lot of informal arrangements were hierarchical.  One would bribe a professional expert or a superior to get things done, or offer a reciprocal service which the superior could not easily obtain by other means, or even just show loyalty in a crisis.

 The present system, according to Ledeneva, is more top down and depends less on privilege, and more on money. That is true, and as a result mutual helping-out at an everyday level is much less common.  People living in the same block of flats no longer spend hours chatting; they keep their affairs largely secret, because they are doing things they do not want their neighbours to know about.  Compared with the Soviet system, it is probably more clubby at the top, but down below people are more lonely.

Sistema gets things done.  People regard it as ineluctable.  They usually recognise the corruption involved (though not always:  there is also misrecognition), but they regard it as inevitable.  And it is convenient for the mass of the population in some ways too.  It enables them to get some things done, and it might even offer them opportunities for advancement or enrichment.  For insiders it offers not only such opportunities but also the rewards of strong personal relationships and the satisfaction of getting things done.

Sistema British style?

At this point I began to think:  Russia is not different after all.  It’s just like other countries, including Britain.  Especially Britain.  It’s no accident that Russian oligarchs like to park their money here, and can get their companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange with apparently few questions asked.

Transitologists should note that Britain in this respect is getting more like Russia:  equality in the face of the law is severely restricted by the cost of legal advice, and legal aid is being cut.  David Cameron tried to give Murdoch tighter control over our media; ministers want greater powers to decide when trials should be held in secret; and we have tax bargaining and large-scale tax avoidance. Our banks and stock exchange have proved hospitable to Russian business practices based on sistema, and our offshore arrangements are just what Russian businessmen crave.  Perhaps the right question is: is Britain de-modernising?

Alena Ledeneva suggests that elements of sistema operate in any society, including the most advanced democracies, but they are restrained by ‘the separation of powers, working state institutions, innovative (and investing) business, secure property rights, equality in the face of the law and a capable civil society,’ all of which are undermined by sistema. Attaining this is what she means by ‘modernisation’: opening things up to the international economy, technological change and the international judicial system.  I would add a lively and diverse media and serious parliamentary proceedings.  That’s a pretty good definition of the differences.  Our juridical system, on the other hand, is trusted to unravel its complexities in a way the Russian juridical system is not.

In some ways the sistema is remarkably effective at getting things done, but its practitioners tend to spend all their time sorting out the complex interrelationships it requires.  It cannot generate a strategic vision or stimulate radical change.

Challenges from within and without

Some final thoughts: how did Alena Ledeneva get the interviews?  Answering that question frankly might perhaps jeopardise the chances of doing further research.  But are they a sign that people in the sistema are becoming more reflective?  When he was President Dmitrii Medvedev said things which suggest they are – but he was unable to follow them up in action.  Ledeneva’s interviews suggest that many people understand well how the system works – indeed you have to in order to remain within it – but not on a conceptual level:  they also give plenty of examples of misrecognition and as the book terms them ‘Open secrets’.

 Alena Ledeneva’s prescriptions for modernisation do not sound very hopeful:  making leaders more conscious of their use of sistema and the way sistema works; exposure to international education, professional training and systems of corporate governance.  She points out that the opposition that mobilised from December 2011 onwards focused on Putin rather than Sistema and proposed to replace him by other persons rather than replacing the system.  Actually, this is not quite true:  they did propose some of the changes she also identifies as constituting modernisation.

Geoffrey Hosking is Emeritus Professor of Russian History at UCL-SSEES.

The cover image is reproduced by kind permission of Cambridge University Press.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

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